We propose Seyla Benhabib’s response to the open letter signed by hundreds of philosophers from North America, Latin America, and Europe, stating that “to act as though the history of violence began with Hamas’s attacks on October 7, 2023 is to display a reckless indifference to history as well as to both Palestinian and Israeli lives.” Among them, Judith Butler (University of California, Berkeley), Étienne Balibar (Kingston University), Donatella Della Porta (Scuola Normale Superiore), Nancy Fraser (New School for Social Research), Eduardo Mendieta (Penn State University), Alberto Toscano (Goldsmiths, University of London). This article was originally published on Amor Mundi, A Selection from The Hannah Arendt Center’s Weekly Newsletter.
Dear Friends, Dear Colleagues:
These are dark times as multiple crises are erupting around the world while talk of a global conflagration is heard in many circles. These are also times that try human relationships, friendships, and alliances. I have read many of you; taught many of you; have been advisor to some of you and have fought together with you for the rights of women in our universities; for gender-sex equality; for the rights of Muslim students to wear the hijab, for the rights of refugees and the stateless among many other battles. But I do not endorse this letter and many of the views expressed in it.
I owe it to my friends and to myself to get our ideas clear. Let me first say that ever since I was a student activist in Istanbul, Turkey in the late 1960s, I have supported the rights of the Palestinian people to self-determination, and as I have reflected over the Israeli-Palestinian and also the Arab-Israeli conflict — and the two are not the same — over the last half century, I have advocated sometimes a binational state; sometimes one state, sometimes a federated structure.
My objection to your letter is that it sees the conflict in Israel-Palestine through the lens of “settler-colonialism” alone, and elevates Hamas’s atrocities of October 7, 2023 to an act of legitimate resistance against an occupying force. By construing the Israel-Palestine conflict through the lens of settler-colonialism, you elide the historical evolution of both peoples. Zionism is not a form of racism, though the actions and institutions of the State of Israel towards the Palestinian people of the occupied West Bank, the refugee camps and, of course, Gaza, are discriminatory on the basis of nationality, not color, and reflect the continuing state of emergency that exists between Israel and its neighbors.
Historically, many Israeli leaders, including none other than Ben Gurion himself, had pleaded for the return of the territories Israel conquered in 1967 because they feared that it would change the democratic and Jewish character of the state. At the time there was no Palestinian Authority, but diverse Palestinian liberation movements emerged in the course of the 1970’s such as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, led by George Habash, and the Palestine Liberation organization, led by Yasser Arafat. Palestinian nationalism, just like many other nationalisms, including Zionism, emerged in the crucible of the struggle for recognition by its opponents. Israeli and Palestinian nationalisms mirror each other, and at the end of the day they have to live cheek by jowl and share the territory with one another.
There is no sense of history in your statement nor any sense of the tragedies that befell these peoples, and the many missed moments when another future seemed possible. Although you refer to “the conditions that produce violence,” you do not mention that Yitzhak Rabin was killed by a Jewish extremist and Anwar Sadat, after his visit to Israel, was killed by a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, the ideological progenitor of Hamas. You write: “the people of Gaza have urged allies worldwide to exert pressure on their governments to demand an immediate ceasefire. But they have been clear that this should — this must — be the beginning and not the end of collective action for liberation.” In endorsing these demands, you also endorse Hamas’s position as the supposed vanguard of the Palestinian “liberation struggle.” This is a colossal mistake. Hamas is a nihilistic organization which treats the civilian population of Gaza as its hostage. The leader of the organization, Ismail Hanniye, sits in a luxury hotel in Qatar, while children on the streets of Gaza die. Yes, as Amnesty International has said, “Gaza is the largest open-air prison in the world,” but this is also due to the fact that Hamas is an exterminationist organization, whose Charter endorses the destruction of the State of Israel. You also implicitly seem to support this when you write that, “If there is to be justice and peace, the siege of Gaza must be lifted; the occupation must end, and the rights must be respected of all people currently living between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean, as well as those of Palestinian refugees in exile.” Amen to that! but do you see Hamas a political organization dedicated to “respecting the rights of all people currently living between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean”? This defies history and logic. Hamas is dedicated to the destruction of the State of Israel; I do not support that. Do you? What moral or political logic is guiding your reasoning here?
The attacks of October 7, 2023 are not “just one salvo in an ongoing war between an occupying state and the people it occupies, or as an occupied people exercising a right to resist violent and illegal occupation, something anticipated by international humanitarian law in the Second Geneva Protocol,” as a letter signed by some Columbia and Barnard colleagues states. (Columbia Faculty Letter: Grave Concerns About the Well-Being of Our Students) They are a turning point not only for the Jewish people in Israel and elsewhere, but also in the history of the Palestinian people. The murder of 1300 Israeli Jews, the wounding of 3000 others, the devastation of kibbutzim and towns and the taking hostage of over 200 people, have created a deep wound in the psyche of many Jews around the world; only compounded by the sense that Israel has lost in the world of public opinion. And it has: anti-Semitism has raised its ugly head from Paris to Dagestan, from Cornell to Berlin. Yes, of course the critique of Israel and Zionism is not anti-Semitism. Left Jewish groups for peace were the first to say that many years ago around the time of the Oslo accords in the late 1980’s and they bear the scars of these struggles against the Israeli establishment.
October 7, 2023 is not just a turning point for Israel and the Jewish diaspora; it must be a turning point for the Palestinian struggle. The Palestinian people must free themselves of the scourge of Hamas. The acts of violence engaged in on October 7, 2023 — the desecration and mutilation of bodies; the killing of children and babies; the burning alive of young people at a music festival; rape and ritual murder and kidnappings — are not only war crimes as well as crimes against humanity; they also reveal that Islamic Jihadi ideology, which revels in the pornography of violence, has overtaken the movement. The struggle for Palestine and the killing of Jewish people is now seen as a jihad. The President of Turkey, never to miss a moment to raise the Islamicist flag when it suits him to cover his authoritarian politics at home, called Hamas “mujehadeen”- fighters for Jihad, during the 100th anniversary celebration of the establishment of the Republic of Turkey on October 29, 2023. The Palestinian people have to fight against this destructive ideology that is now overtaking their movement.
Yes, it is not only Hamas which has committed war crimes; Israel is in the process of doing so in Gaza as well. The “disproportional” violence and destruction of the civilian population under conditions of hostility is a war crime. The children of Gaza have become “collateral damage,” in the cold language of rules of armed engagement, and Israel must be condemned for not doing all it can to avoid bombing the civil population of Gaza which apparently now has exceeded 9,000. But we cannot neglect the utter nihilism and cynicism of Hamas in placing their weapons and headquarters under hospitals and mosques, which they know full well, if and when they are hit by Israel, will cause world-wide outrage.
Nonetheless, I endorse the call for an end to this cruel cycle of violence, almost biblical and apocalyptic in its ferocity, and also call for a cease-fire in Gaza. The cease-fire must be accompanied by the immediate evacuation of the wounded, the elderly and the young from Gaza. There must not be a second Nakba. Neighboring countries as well as communities in the West Bank as well as Jordan and Egypt, and other countries, must volunteer to receive Palestinian refugees who wish to escape conditions of hostility. But at the end of the day, a Palestinian state must be established. There must be an exchange of prisoners for hostages. Israel is holding thousands of Palestinians in its prisons; some must be released in accordance with conditions conforming to international law in return for hostages.
The Abraham Accords, which neglected the Palestinians, must incorporate them as well and lead towards a final recognition of the borders of the State of Israel and the establishment of a Palestinian state on the West Bank and parts of Gaza. The fact that there is no territorial contiguity between Gaza and the rest of the Palestinian territories will need to be dealt with through some arrangements, just as the close to 500,000 Israeli settlers will need to be withdrawn from the occupied territories. And this may result in a civil war in Israel.
There are two real dangers at the present which will affect any peaceful resolution of this conflict for the next half century: Hamas’s victory in the eyes of the world, and the mobilization of world public opinion against Israel, also mean that members of the Palestinian Authority, and other Palestinian who accept co-existence with Israel, have been sidelined. Young Palestinians on the West Bank who are impressed by Hamas, may start flocking to it. Reasonable and honorable voices among the Palestinians who choose peaceful coexistence, such as the philosopher, Sari Nusseibeh, ex-President of the University of Al-Quds, and Mustafa Baghrouti may be completely silenced now. The international community, and above all, the United States, must stop the marginalization of alternative Palestinian leaderships.
Another danger, and here I join those who accuse Israel’s colonial-settler policies in the occupied territories, are the efforts of right-wing Israeli parties; of the governing Likud; of the fascist, Itmar Ben Gwir, who is the so-called Minister of National Security; of Bezalel Smotrich, the Finance Minister, and others to create “facts on the ground” by dispossessing, beating, and torturing Palestinians on the West Bank. They intend nothing other than the “ethnic cleansing” of Judea and Samaria- the Biblical names of the land of Israel. They are the legatees of a long line of Judeo-fascism, which none other than Albert Einstein, joined by Hannah Arendt and Sidney Hook, denounced in their Open Letter to the NY Times on December 2, 1948, titled “New Palestine Party: Menachem Begin and Aims of Political Movement Discussed.” They write:
Among the most disturbing political phenomena of our times is the emergence in the newly created state of Israel of the “Freedom Party” (Tnuat Haherut), a political party closely akin in its organization, methods, political philosophy and social appeal to the Nazi and Fascist parties. It was formed out of the membership and following of the former Irgun Zvai Leumi, a terrorist, right-wing, chauvinist organization in Palestine….
A shocking example was their behavior in the Arab village of Deir Yassin. This village, off the main roads and surrounded by Jewish lands, had taken no part in the war, and had even fought off Arab bands who wanted to use the village as their base. On April 9 (The New York Times), terrorist bands attacked this peaceful village, which was not a military objective in the fighting, killed most of its inhabitants — 240 men, women, and children — and kept a few of them alive to parade as captives through the streets of Jerusalem.
Today the legatees of this party and movement — Likud was established by Meanchem Begin — are in power in Israel and they have brought upon Israel the worst disaster since the Holocaust. The Jewish community in the diaspora must have the courage to speak these truths and intervene in this cycle of violence before the region explodes further in spasms of Messianic violence on both sides.
I am not confident that any of what I believe must happen will come to pass in the near future. But as philosophers we need to get our ideas clear. As Kant said in 1795, although the idea of “Perpetual peace” among nations may resemble the picture that a Dutch Innkeeper placed on his window of a graveyard, playing on the German word, “ewig,” which can mean both eternal and perpetual, we have no choice but to hope that through our principles we can change the world as well.
Cover photo: this picture was shot from a position along the border with the Gaza Strip in southern Israel shows smoke billowing during Israeli shelling amid ongoing battles with the Palestinian militant group Hamas, on November 14, 2023. (Photo by Jack Guez / AFP)